This week’s guest blogger is James Hannam, he has a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge and is the author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (published in the UK as God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science).
The award of the Templeton Prize to the retired president of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, has reawakened the controversy over science and religion. I have had the pleasure of meeting Lord Rees a couple of times, including when my book God’s Philosophers (newly released in the US as The Genesis of Science) was shortlisted for the Royal Society science book prize. I doubt he has welcomed the fuss over the Templeton Foundation, but neither will he be particularly perturbed by it.
Few topics are as open to misunderstanding as the relationship between faith and reason. The ongoing clash of creationism with evolution obscures the fact that Christianity has actually had a far more positive role to play in the history of science than commonly believed. Indeed, many of the alleged examples of religion holding back scientific progress turn out to be bogus. For instance, the Church has never taught that the Earth is flat and, in the Middle Ages, no one thought so anyway. Popes haven’t tried to ban zero, human dissection or lightening rods, let alone excommunicate Halley’s Comet. No one, I am pleased to say, was ever burnt at the stake for scientific ideas. Yet, all these stories are still regularly trotted out as examples of clerical intransigence in the face of scientific progress.
Admittedly, Galileo was put on trial for claiming it is a fact that the Earth goes around the sun, rather than just a hypothesis as the Catholic Church demanded. Still, historians have found that even his trial was as much a case of papal egotism as scientific conservatism. It hardly deserves to overshadow all the support that the Church has given to scientific investigation over the centuries.
That support took several forms. One was simply financial. Until the French Revolution, the Catholic Church was the leading sponsor of scientific research. Starting in the Middle Ages, it paid for priests, monks and friars to study at the universities. The church even insisted that science and mathematics should be a compulsory part of the syllabus. And after some debate, it accepted that Greek and Arabic natural philosophy were essential tools for defending the faith. By the seventeenth century, the Jesuit order had become the leading scientific organisation in Europe, publishing thousands of papers and spreading new discoveries around the world. The cathedrals themselves were designed to double up as astronomical observatories to allow ever more accurate determination of the calendar. And of course, modern genetics was founded by a future abbot growing peas in the monastic garden.
But religious support for science took deeper forms as well. It was only during the nineteenth century that science began to have any practical applications. Technology had ploughed its own furrow up until the 1830s when the German chemical industry started to employ their first PhDs. Before then, the only reason to study science was curiosity or religious piety. Christians believed that God created the universe and ordained the laws of nature. To study the natural world was to admire the work of God. This could be a religious duty and inspire science when there were few other reasons to bother with it. It was faith that led Copernicus to reject the ugly Ptolemaic universe; that drove Johannes Kepler to discover the constitution of the solar system; and that convinced James Clerk Maxwell he could reduce electromagnetism to a set of equations so elegant they take the breathe away.
Given that the Church has not been an enemy to science, it is less surprising to find that the era which was most dominated by Christian faith, the Middle Ages, was a time of innovation and progress. Inventions like the mechanical clock, glasses, printing and accountancy all burst onto the scene in the late medieval period. In the field of physics, scholars have now found medieval theories about accelerated motion, the rotation of the earth and inertia embedded in the works of Copernicus and Galileo. Even the so-called “dark ages” from 500AD to 1000AD were actually a time of advance after the trough that followed the fall of Rome. Agricultural productivity soared with the use of heavy ploughs, horse collars, crop rotation and watermills, leading to a rapid increase in population.
It was only during the “enlightenment” that the idea took root that Christianity had been a serious impediment to science. Voltaire and his fellow philosophes opposed the Catholic Church because of its close association with France’s absolute monarchy. Accusing clerics of holding back scientific development was a safe way to make a political point. The cudgels were later taken up by TH Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, in his struggle to free English science from any sort of clerical influence. Creationism did the rest of the job of persuading the public that Christianity and science are doomed to perpetual antagonism.
Nonetheless, today, science and religion are the two most powerful intellectual forces on the planet. Both are capable of doing enormous good, but their chances of doing so are much greater if they can work together. The award of the Templeton Prize to Lord Rees is a small step in the right direction.
The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution is available now.
Shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize
“Well-researched and hugely enjoyable.” New Scientist
“A spirited jaunt through centuries of scientific development… captures the wonder of the medieval world: its inspirational curiosity and its engaging strangeness.” Sunday Times
“This book contains much valuable material summarised with commendable no-nonsense clarity… James Hannam has done a fine job of knocking down an old caricature.” Sunday Telegraph